|Obama's speech was closely watched in both the US and the Middle East [AFP]
In Barack Obama's highly anticipated speech in Cairo, there was something that struck me as distinctively American: His call for the peoples of the Middle East to put aside or quickly resolve decades and even centuries-old conflicts.
"Whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it," the US president said on Thursday.
Easier said then done, of course. The notion of "turning the page" comes easily to many Americans, but is odd and unsettling to cultures still living with the results of historic wrongs.
Another thing struck me as distinctly political: Obama's constant references to his Muslim background, boyhood days in Indonesia, and frequent citations from the Quran sounded a bit odd coming from a man who made strenuous efforts to ignore those aspects of his autobiography in the 2008 campaign for the White House.
In fact, Obama's campaign attacked critics who insisted on using his middle name; now, here was Barack Hussein Obama on stage in Cairo dropping a "shukran" (Arabic for "thank you" here) and an "assalaamu alaikum" (peace be unto you) there.
Back in the US, there is an unwritten rule that politicians do not criticise the president when he is travelling abroad.
|Nancy Pelosi praised Obama's speech as a
'great triumph' [GALLO/GETTY]
However that did not stop Obama's opponents. Dan Burton, a Republican congressman, blasted him on Iran and Israel, saying: "When he talks about Iran, it doesn't make any sense right now, there's no way to guarantee that Iran isn't developing a nuclear weapons programme and I believe they are, and Israel is threatened severely."
Joining the Republican chorus was Elizabeth Cheney, a former Bush administration state department official and daughter of the former vice-president, Dick Cheney.
Her comments seemed intended to defend her father from criticism of his actions on waterboarding and selective use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
"I, as an American, find it troubling to hear an American president on foreign soil say our reaction to 9/11 was something that betrayed our ideals," she told MSNBC news on Thursday.
Fellow Democrats, meanwhile, praised Obama, with Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the house of representatives, calling the speech "a great triumph".
'Scorn' over Iran
But one particular phrase in Obama's remarks on Iran drew a flurry of scorn from the right.
"There is indeed a tumultuous history between us," Obama said, stating the obvious.
He went on: "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government."
Of course, every Iranian schoolchild knows how the CIA orchestrated (not "played a role") in the coup that topped Mohammed Mossadegh, the then prime minister, in August 1953, but you would be hard pressed to find one American in 1,000 who has ever heard of it.
But on the Fox News network, that reference to the coup was seen as craven grovelling.
Jonah Goldberg, a conservative author and Fox contributor, said Obama's "constant apologising" was Obama's way to "advance his own cult of personality".
And Gretchen Carlson, a Fox anchorwoman, said in astonishment: "He apologised for the US role in Iran!"
One of the most animated moments in Obama's speech came as he talked about his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan.
"It is agonising for America to lose our young men and women," Obama said, admitting it is "politically difficult to continue this conflict".
However, he argued that the US must do so to avoid allowing Afghanistan to become a haven for al-Qaeda and other extremists.
And many Obama supporters on the left are deeply concerned that Obama's Afghanistan policy may end up as a quagmire sucking his presidency down to disaster, much as the war in Vietnam overshadowed the progressive achievements of Lyndon Johnson.